Spelling Counts

I used to think I was a pretty good speller, until a few weeks ago when on a job interview I took an editing test and corrected the already correct “committed”. I do not know why I failed to recognize “committed” as correct. I was committed to “commited”. The only explanation I have is that my commitment to “commited” was because of “commitment.”

Why do we double the “t” on “committed” but are committed to one “t” on “commitment”? It’s a puzzler. One that basically proves how strange and complicated the English language happens to be.

Just read an essay by Binnie Kirshenbaum in the LA Times on the joys and complications of the language, and how spell-check changed a writer’s life. 

One way in which spell-check changes Kirshenbaum’s life is lessening her need to go to the dictionary (when she was young teachers of course told her to look up a word in the dictionary). Which is disappointing to her. Consulting the dictionary to check the spelling of a word led to the discovery of other words, whole continents of words: 

Looking up the word “curriculum” — which I am always sure begins c-i — led me to “cinerarium: a place to receive the ashes of the cremated dead.” And who would not pause to consider “circumstellar” or “Clactonian,” in the adjacent column? After eliminating c-o (core-iculum?), I got to c-u-r, “curettage” and “curium: a metallic radioactive element produced artificially.”

As a writer and reader, I’ve had that experience. I love consulting the dictionary to check spelling. It’s a fun journey to discover the new and unusual, or even just to make sure you’re saying what you mean.

Meaning, of course, is a primary function of the dictionary. This morning I was reading Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and came across half a dozen unfamiliar words or words that seem familiar like “sedge” but you don’t quite have a grip on what it means. Proulx is a master of le mot juste, I’m certain now after looking up “sedge,” which is basically marsh grass. She uses “sedge” to describe a tuft of hair sprouting out from under a hat. A perfect picture.

Spell-check helps writers with spelling, a check on the fly, but as Kirshenbaum makes clear, it doesn’t give a perfect picture of a word, nor does it take you on the journey a dictionary can. It only spells. It’s committed to spelling.

I only wish I had it or a dictionary available when I committed to “commited” and blew an editing test.


2 thoughts on “Spelling Counts

  1. Todd, I used to teach a grammar course as a last chance for students trying to get in the journalism program at UT. Here’s the story: I call it “second is double.” With a two syllable word, if you add “ed,” if the second syllable is accented, you double the letter. The first syllable accented? It stays single.

    • Joe,
      That’s a good rule to remember. It beats trying to memorize the spelling of every word in the universe. Of course, now the big thing is whether or not I can remember the rule. The memory seems to be not quite what it was even 10 years ago.

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